Apostrophes: One Mark, Three Ways

By Jennifer Rappaport

Apostrophes can be used in three ways: to form contractions, to create plurals, and to show possession.* Read up on the details below and then take our quiz!


Apostrophes are used to form contractions—that is, words that are shortened by omitting one or more letters—for example, you’re for you are, ma’am for madam, tellin’ for telling, and ’til for until.

When the apostrophe is at the start of the word—as in ’til—be sure that the punctuation mark is inserted correctly. It should look like a single closing quotation mark, not an opening one.


Apostrophes are used to form the plurals of letters:

Accommodation has two c’s and two m’s.
Mind your p’s and q’s.
She had three scarlet A’s on her back.

But apostrophes are not used for the plurals of letters referring to grades or for the plurals of abbreviations containing capital letters:

She got three As.

This program is open to people with MAs and PhDs.


Apostrophes are used to show possession. For singular nouns and irregular plurals (those not ending in s), you should add ’s to the end of the word. For plural nouns ending in s, you should add only an apostrophe:

the cat’s meow
the people’s choice
an old wives’ tale

Note, though, that when a word ending in s is the same in the plural as it is in the singular, you just add an apostrophe:

scissors’ blades
identity politics’ critics

Also add only an apostrophe for proper names when the name is plural but the entity is singular:

the United States’ policy on China

In MLA style, proper nouns ending in s that are singular follow the general rule and add ’s :

Athens’s history
Diogenes’s philosophy
Alexandre Dumas’s novels

Some styles may allow you to add only an apostrophe: Athens’ history, Diogenes’ philosophy, Dumas’ novels.

If two nouns jointly possess something, use only one apostrophe:

My mom and dad’s house

But if each noun possesses something separately, use an apostrophe with each noun:

Smith’s and Johnson’s studies

Remember to use an apostrophe in phrases such as the following:

one week’s vacation (one week of vacation)

And use an apostrophe for the double possessive:

He is a friend of Steve’s (Steve’s is the equivalent of the possessive pronoun his: a friend of his.)

Though practices vary, you may omit the apostrophe when a noun modifies another noun—that is, when the first noun is attributive:

a teachers union (a union for teachers)

*These rules are adapted from the MLA Handbook, 7th edition.

Published 20 September 2017

35 comments on “Apostrophes: One Mark, Three Ways”

  1. “Apostrophes are used to form the plurals of lowercase letters.” Can they also be used for capital letters and numbers? Anything else? 😉

    • Thanks for your question. The possessive of “Camus” is formed the same way it is for “Dumas,” shown above, so you would write “Albert Camus’s novel,” even though the second “s” is not pronounced. Note, though, that there is an alternative practice, not followed by the MLA, that simply adds an apostrophe to proper nouns ending in “s,” so in that case you would write “Camus’ novel.”

      • Actually, it is the first “s” in “Albert Camus’s novel” which is not pronounced. Or are you saying that neither one is?

  2. Jennifer,
    I would like to ask for clarification about apostrophes used to form plurals of numbers. I understand that an apostrophe is not needed when an “s” follows a number (1900s). Is that correct?

  3. I have a question about surnames that are both plural and posessive. If we are discussing something owned by a couple, would we say the Joneses’ garage in MLA? Thanks!

  4. Where would I put the possessive apostrophe in the case of a work’s title that ends in “s”? For example, Wuthering Heights (“Wuthering Heights’s narrative arc” or “Wuthering Heights’ narrative arc”?)

    • Excellent question. A title is treated as a singular entity, so adding an ‘s after the title is technically correct, but appending an ‘s to any title is awkward. It is usually best to rearrange the sentence: The narrative arc of Wuthering Heights. . . .

  5. How about the possessive of a proper noun that is already a possessive, e.g., the store Kohl’s? If I want to refer to something as belonging to Kohl’s, how do I write it?

  6. Hello,
    When referring to decades such as the seventies, eighties or nineties, and when abbreviating, what is the correct way to write these? Would it be 1970s, 70s, and/or ’70s?
    Many thanks

  7. You owe what would be a terrific place for information like the information presented in this post? The handbook. I may be overlooking it — it wouldn’t the first time that I can’t find something right in front of my face — but I can’t find that guidance in the handbook itself.

  8. What do you recommend for a last name that ends in “s” that would also be possessive? For example, would you write “Adams’ Family Adventures” or “Adamses’ Family Adventures” or “Adams’s Family Adventures”? Thanks!

  9. When TYPING a possessive word, should there be a space after the word, thus before the ‘s?

    Mark ‘s

    When WRITING a possessive word in cursive print, should there be a space after the word thus before the ‘s?

  10. I thought that if a name was one syllable, you use the apostrophe as follow: Ross’s or if two syllables, Alexis’ or the The Thomas’. Is this incorrect?

  11. How do I make something in quotes possessive? For example:
    “Mending Wall”‘s meter is iambic pentameter.
    Is this correct — close quote followed by ‘s?

  12. Which one is correct?
    Bring your whole family out of the Wayne Thomas’s Family Skate Night on . .

    Bring your whole family out to the Wayne Thomas’ Family Skate Night on . . .

    Bring your whole family out to the Wayne Thomases Family Skate Night on . . .

  13. I read someplace a few years back that the plural of an acronym will have ‘s after the letters. For example would plural of an IRA (Individual Retirement Account) be IRA’s? The plural of Key Performance Indicator (KPI) plural be KPI’s. As opposed to an acronym that would just have the s at the end?

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